Starry Sky Stacker
Starry Sky Stacker, from the developers of Starry Landscape Stacker, is a Mac-only image stacking program that allows you to stack, or combine, images of deep sky objects taken with a star tracker to reduce noise and enhance detail. You can also stack these deep sky images in Starry Landscape stacker, Deep Sky Stacker, Pixinsight and even Photoshop to name a few. Starry Sky Stacker is an efficient and user-friendly program that currently costs $25 in the app store. This article is not a paid review; I bought the program with my hard earned money.
What Does Starry Sky Stacker Do?
Deep sky imaging consists of taking a series of images, sometimes a few hundred, over many hours and combining them to create one stunning final image. Starry Sky Stacker reads your set of images, aligns them, estimates the quality and sorts them by the image quality. By default, the program uses the best half of your pictures but provides you a slider so that you can choose to add or subtract from the total number of images used. If you adjust the slider, it will keep that adjustment for future photos. The preview image will always be the one with the lowest quality ranking. This feature alone makes the software worth the price. Instead of culling through hundreds of photos Starry Sky Stacker does that for you! If you attempt to use Starry Landscape Stacker or Photoshop to stack these images, you will have to cull through your images beforehand.
Let’s Get Started
To get started, I’ve exported all of my images as 16-bit, uncompressed, TIFF files from Lightroom since Starry Landscape Stacker does not support RAW files.
Once you open Starry Sky Stacker, you’ll be prompted to select your images. Be sure to check the “Display the image classification table after opening” dialog box. Doing this allows you to review the frames just in case some of them were not classified correctly. In my experience, the software usually does a good job, but sometimes it’ll throw you a curve ball! It’s worth your time to double check the classification.
The Lights, the Darks, and Flats
Starry Sky Stacker supports Light, Dark and Flat frames. Light frames are regular night sky exposures. Dark frames are used to subtract hot pixels and other thermal noise from your images. Flat frames remove vignetting. Bias frames are not supported.
What is a Flat Frame?
If you’ve ever taken a photo of a bright blue sky, you might have noticed that the lens naturally vignettes in the corners. Flat frames will remove this vignetting. If you leave your rig set up until morning, you can use a clear blue sky to take your flat frames. Flat frames are shot at the same ISO, aperture, focal length and focus as your light frames. Shutter speed does not matter. You’ll want a bright light that evenly illuminates your frame.
Instead of waiting for the morning, I like to pull up an all-white screen on my iPad and turn the brightness to 100%. I then put this directly over the front of my lens. Put your camera in aperture priority mode; this will let the camera choose your shutter speed. Keeping the same setting mentioned above, take a series of 20 flat frames. You can shot more or less if you wish, but I usually stick with 20.
What is a Dark Frame?
Once you start doing deep sky imaging, you’ll quickly learn the importance of dark frames. As I mentioned above, dark frames are used to subtract hot pixels and thermal noise from your images. The difference between your light frames and your dark frames is the lens cap. After you’re done taking your regular light frames, don’t touch anything, put the lens cap on and take a series of dark frames. Blocking the light from the sensor will create a black, or “dark,” frame. Any data in this image that is not black does not belong and is subtracted from your light frame. Again, I usually take 20 dark frames, but you can shoot more or less if you wish. Starry Sky Stacker will process these individually without any issues.
Mastering the Flats
Before importing flat frames, you’ll have to create a master flat frame. To do so, import all of your flat frames and Starry Sky Stacker will recognize them, and automatically prompt you to save a master flat file.
How Starry Sky Stacker Works
Once you’ve created your master flat file, it’s time to import all of your images. I have 105 light frames of the Pleiades, 20 dark frames and a master flat frame created from 20 flat frames images. I made a separate folder on my desktop for all my photos making the import process a piece of cake. Double check the classification of your frames.
The importing, aligning and sorting process can take some time. So, this will depend on how many images you have and how powerful your machine is. With my modest 2017 MacBook Pro, this process didn’t take long at all. Attempting to open the same 145 TIFF files in photoshop would have been a nightmare.
From here, it’s as simple as adjusting the quality slider until you’re happy with the results. Keep in mine, at this point; you do not see the stacked image. Instead, you see the photo with the lowest quality ranking from your selected images. If the image displayed has star trails, you can choose to exclude it by clicking the exclude button or by
Happy with what you see? Hit composite! It’s that easy. Starry Sky Stacker will composite the images and give you the option of which stacking algorithm you want to use. The choices are simple; Mean, Median, Dark Median, Max,
A Starry Landscape Stacker Replacement?
Starry Landscape Stacker does a pretty good job by itself. If you only plan to stack a dozen or so deep sky images, then I don’t see a need for the upgrade. Starry Landscape Stacker also supports Light, Dark, Flat and Bias frames, so it can handle more than you think. If you’re planning to stack a large number of images, however, I would go ahead an invest in Starry Sky Stacker. For a free trial of Starry Landscape Stacker, click here.
Why Not Just Use Photoshop?
Photoshop is a very potent tool, and no matter what stacking software I use, my images always end up in Photoshop. The biggest issue I have with Photoshop is its speed when it comes to processing large amounts of TIFF files. Auto aligning 100 images, converting them to a smart object and applying a mean or median filter in Photoshop will leave you quite a bit of time to knock out some household chores. Want to try out a free trial of Photoshop? Click here.
I’ve not used PixInsight, but I’ve watched several hours of tutorial videos on youtube for comparison. There is no doubt of the capability of PixInsight, but there does seem to be a steep learning curve. To learn more about PixInsight, click here.
But I Have a PC – then try Deep Sky Stacker!
Deep Sky Stacker is a Windows-only program so I was unable to test this one. Although, this would probably be my program of choice if I had a Windows PC. Deep Sky Stacker has a reputation that speaks for itself, and it’s free! To check out and download Deep Sky Stacker, click here.
Starry Sky Stacker is a simple, straight to the point program and I like that. No bells or whistles here. It delivers what it promises in a frustration-free, quick to use, and affordable program. If you’re a Mac user and plan on stacking large numbers of tracked night sky images, then I would highly recommend Starry Sky Stacker! Click here to try a free trial of Starry Sky Stacker for yourself!
If you’ve tried Starry Sky Stacker, let me know in the comments below. If not, would you? Why or why not?